Dance-seeing as a way of thinking Jul 2015English

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Contextual note
This article was first published on the website of the Goethe Institute. Translated by Eileen Fl├╝gel.

The decline of dance criticism has been deplored for some time. Someone who has never resigned himself to the fact is the Belgian writer and thinker Jeroen Peeters. For him, contemporary dance has been and remains a rich field of observation and experience where he has worked tirelessly by means of language for nearly 20 years.


Peeters has written regular reviews for the daily press, was a dramaturge for Meg Stuart and a performer for deufert&plischke. He is one of the founders of Sarma, the legendary Flemish Internet platform for thought on dance and choreography. His ethos is quite clearly to write about the works of contemporary artists, but never to write without them or without involving them. Thus, he is not a critic whose mission is being weighed in the balances. Rather, he is a thinker and sometimes also a chronicler. In his long and close exchange with choreographers such as Vera Mantero, Boris Charmatz, Philipp Gehmacher, Kattrin Deufert and Thomas Plischke, Jennifer Lacey and Meg Stuart, he has followed work and thought processes, analysing critical strategies – or perhaps, to put it more appropriately, strategies of criticism – and presenting himself as a “professional spectator“ between the different regimes of theatre, seeing, understanding and perception.

Peeters, whose area of influence extends to the whole of Western and Central Europe, not to forget Scandinavia, has now compiled important texts of the past 15 years in a book entitled Through the Back. Most of these are articles in specialist journals which he has translated into English, revised, updated and supplemented by a preface and a concluding chapter. The subtitle of this anthology outlines the book’s real subject: Situating Vision, which is to say that the cultural technique of seeing itself is not universal, not an unquestioned constant in an artistic approach to the world. Rather, the principal of visibility exists prior to and independently from theatre as an institution, giving dance a very specific task of its own. For, as Peeters says in his introductory chapter, “This practice of looking is itself discursive, as it is formed by a history of media and images and thus also situated in the realm of cultural intelligibility.“


Images look at us

The understanding that current dance as an artistic form covers far more than simply arranging bodies and movement into choreographic forms is no longer new. However, the complexity and also the difficulty of seeing dance and understanding its works demand perspectives based on cultural studies and critical perception that cannot remain in the realm of the merely aesthetic.

On the other hand, this seeing applies not only to images, but also to movement of which the medium is bodies. Thus, seeing is an interaction between the spectator’s body and that of the dancer. And this interaction is the source of a whole number of possible ways of constituting the genre of dance. Thus, dance is a specification of the task of seeing, whereby situations are produced that connect seeing per se, but above all watching, to a particular form of representing movement through bodies. “In dance, the imaginary intertwining and multiplication of the bodies of performers and spectators ... literally and actively situates vision between moving bodies.“ And the author of Through the Back is interested in this connection.

The title Through the Back refers to the large blind spot in our visual culture, namely the structurally invisible, which is an integral part of everything that is visible. Without technical aids or complicated media constructs, we can in fact see very little, especially of ourselves. The back always remains hidden, as does the inside. Thus, visible space faces an invisible, or non-visible, space that is at least as large. “Human vision thrives on an ‘aesthetics of disappearance’, it overlooks looking itself and ignores the mediation of the visual act,” as Peeters puts it.


The closed world

Contemporary choreography – or at any rate, the section of artistic creation from the last 15 years to which Peeters has turned his attention – is constantly negotiating these connections. What meanings are created if consideration is given not only to the visible, but also the invisible? How uniformly can a plexus of meaning that never shows itself in its entirety be structured? For Peeters, this is precisely where dance comes into play. Its actors – including critics – “are no longer outside observers of reality driven by the modern triumph of representation; … they explore the question of why the world doesn’t simply present itself to their view in a light and transparent form.“ Thus, it is only logical that Through the Back gets by without a single dance photograph. After all, the idea is to see the dance behind the dance – dance as a form of thought.

Jeroen Peeters, „Through the Back. Situating Vision between Moving Bodies“. University of the Arts, Helsinki 2014. 312 pages, ISBN 9-789526-670386.